The mind fears, the heart delights
July 13, 2005
Among the throng backstage at the Benedict Music Tent last week, acting as if they had just seen a major rock show and not the classical string foursome the Kronos Quartet, was Sydney Hodkinson. Hodkinson practically led the fevered charge, visibly buzzing from the performance and hugging a slightly startled David Harrington.Hodkinson, like the rest of the young-leaning audience, was captivated by Kronos’ presentation, including the lights and amplification that are rarities in the music tent. The two pieces he cited as highlights, Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” and Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s “Oasis,” featured another classical music oddity, recorded tracks to supplement the live playing. For all the differences from the usual fare at the Aspen Music Festival, the concert provided Hodkinson with the same sort of thrill he gets from the classics of classical music.”When I hear a new piece, I don’t think I’m lying to say I want the same reaction, ideally, as when I hear a Mozart quintet,” said Hodkinson. “I want to be touched. I want somehow the music to reach out and grab me, and not be just a study in special effects and intelligent craft.”Hodkinson has been feeling that way for most of his 71 years. And it’s hard to imagine that his enthusiasm, for music generally but for new work specifically, hasn’t grown over those decades. A composer and conductor, Hodkinson has approached his work in Aspen, as director of the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble for seven years, with loads of energy and zeal. He credits his constant state of engagement to “an intense love of the art.” “It’s my life,” concludes Hodkinson, who retired in 1999 from his teaching position at the Rochester, N.Y. Eastman School of Music to the shores of Ormand Beach, Fla., where he indulges another passion, swimming.
Sharing that thrill of discovering the new is, of course, a challenge. Classical music programmers everywhere know that the dependable crowds that are drawn to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky will generally pass on unfamiliar, new works.In years past, the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, a handful-plus of adventurous student musicians, was made to stand on its own, presenting concerts of all-new music. “With predictable results – 103 people in Harris Hall,” noted Hodkinson. “Which is fine. Those who do come are often sincerely and genuinely interested in new art. They’re hip, they’ve heard a lot of it and it’s comforting to peddle our wares to folks like that.”Still, Hodkinson would love to play to bigger crowds of those folks. So this year, the Contemporary Ensemble’s performances have been squeezed into the regular faculty-led chamber music concerts, generally scheduled for Mondays and Saturdays. The seven-piece group has played David Liptak’s “Ancient Songs” and Barbara White’s “the mind’s fear, the heart’s delight,” on programs that have also included Brahms piano quartets and Ravel chansons. And Hodkinson remains pleased.”The value is two-fold,” said Hodkinson, gray-haired and dressed like a beach bum in T-shirt, shorts and sandals. “The person who comes to hear a Brahms quintet on a Saturday afternoon gets to hear the quintet. But they also get to hear the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble play a piece of new music. And the players get to play for 400 people. They deserve that.”
On Saturday, July 16, the chamber music concert – in memory of the late English horn player Philip West, a longtime Aspen faculty member – includes pieces by Berlioz and Fauré, plus two pieces written for West: John Harbison’s “Crossing, for Phil West” and the world premiere of Hodkinson’s “Bricks,” a concerto-fantasia for violin solo and chamber sextet. In his notes to the composition, Hodkinson writes that “Bricks is not a customary lamenting memorial. … I tried to write a work that I felt my friend would have enjoyed hearing.” Hodkinson, a Canadian by birth who was raised in Winnipeg, Vancouver and Windsor, attended the Eastman School of Music in the mid-’50s, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees there. The school was led by Howard Hanson, whom Hodkinson calls “a leading figure of American composition. And very conservative.”Hanson’s conservatism, to an extent, protected Hodkinson and his classmates from the serialism movement that took hold of classical music in the mid-20th century. Ushered in by composer Arnold Schoenberg, serialism became, in hands less-skilled than its inventor, that exercise in “intelligent craft” that Hodkinson spoke of. Composers of the serialism school wrote with mathematical precision and complexity, generally creating sheets of music that impressed other insiders, but left audiences deflated and alienated. Schoenberg’s creation was especially dominant in American conservatories, but Hodkinson escaped its hold by embracing jazz, playing saxophone and other woodwinds through his 20s and 30s.”I found Berg” – one of the more enduring serialist composers – “fascinating, one of my favorite composers when I was a youngster,” said Hodkinson, who earned a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has spent his years leading contemporary ensembles there and at Eastman. “But I had to admit to myself, and sometimes it was hard to do in front of colleagues and peers, that I didn’t enjoy Schoenberg and Webern. This is not to say that my own music isn’t at times gnarly, and acidic. But I care about writing music that sounds beautiful, gracious.”
Hodkinson prides himself on the breadth of his listening. In both his own compositions and those he selects to perform, he aims to explore the whole range from challenging to comforting, serious to goofy, intellectual to emotional.”My tastes are very catholic, from [jazz saxophonist] Phil Woods, who is joyous, to the darkest Messiaen,” he said. “Music is a very, very large horizon from one end to the other. Since I’m in a position here in Aspen trying to find stuff to play, I try to find that largeness.”Hodkinson can’t expect all audiences to bring a similar sense of inclusiveness to the concert hall. But he doesn’t think it’s asking too much to put the days of serialism in the past, and ask listeners to develop an adventurousness, rather than dread, with regard to new music. The music he presents may be thorny – or it may be elegant, or simple or fun.”The attitude you bring to that performance can be expressed in two ways: ‘I never heard anything like THAT before!!’ Or, ‘My God, I’ve never heard ANYTHING like that before.’ It can be in anger or awe,” said Hodkinson.
Two hundred years ago, audiences showed up at the concert hall expecting to hear something fresh, desiring to hear Mozart tackling contemporary existence in his music. Hodkinson implores modern listeners to seek not only the soothing sounds of what is already well-known, but the more uncertain realm of the unknown.”Too often, people come to concerts with that expectation of seeing a piece written in 1998 and expecting it to be characteristic of 19th century music, expecting it to possess the same characteristics of music written in 1898,” he said. “And when it doesn’t meet that sense of expectation – no recurrent rhythm patterns, no beautiful melodic line – how can the listener be anything but disappointed and put off? “It’s the idea that the composer’s inner ear is working to present their sounds in their own new ways. They’re not duplicating what was done before – and that’s as true for Brahms as it is for Barbara White. The standoffishness ought to be a factor to engage your ear, something that you would welcome rather than something that would piss you off. That’s the bummer – whereas, it should be a cause for rejoicing, for God’s sake.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org